The Motorcycle Hill Climber Who Climbed Capitol Hill

Sunday, October 15, 2017

On Labor Day weekend of 1929, 300 motorcyclists and their families roared into the sleepy resort town of Long Beach, WA for a motorcycle rally known then as a Gypsy Tour. Aside from the three days of two-wheeled camaraderie that ensued, one rider raced ahead of the rest. His name was Marion Diederiks, an unknown motorcycle messenger from Portland who became “grand champion” after winning 8 out of 12 races over the weekend. His victories included various pursuit and get-away races, the two-mile open, and a broad jump.

 

Although a promising start of a career in racing, he curiously never won any other speed races like these hereafter. Instead he later found his true calling in a different form of racing known as the hill climb — a race to the top of rough hills that were so steep they were practically vertical. Marion's career negotiating these hills spanned two decades and culminated in the establishment of his own Harley Davidson dealership on Capitol Hill. His fortune in cash prizes, his regional fame, and the tightly-knit group of riders he bonded with along the way made it all possible.

 

The result was a dealership with a unique business model that wove standard sales and service and the spectacle of professional racing into the same fabric. And although this fabric abruptly unraveled with the onset of war and personal dramas, Marion kept the dealership going in one form or another for three decades on 12th Ave and later on Broadway.

 

Marion Diederiks

Marion Buckingham Diederiks was born on February 11, 1907 to working-class parents Lillian and Jacob Diederiks of Portland. Marion took an early interest in motorcycles. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, he placed an ad in the Oregonian classified section offering to sell three motorcycles out of his home for a combined price of $220 (worth $3,200 today). However, this early entrepreneurial foray may have been more so out of necessity to support his family than pure interest. His parents changed jobs and moved the family around fairly often during his youth, an indication of possible financial duress. Also Marion's father died a year later. The cause of his death is unknown, but perhaps a drawn out illness necessitated Marion to start work early and fill in for his father.

 

Whatever it as was, Marion continued to work on motorcycles and eventually took up additional work as a messenger for the Oregonian newspaper to continue supporting his family. While doing so, he met Mollie Brethauer the precocious daughter of working-class Germans who'd emigrated to the U.S. from Russia a year before she was born in 1909. The two got married on November 29, 1927 and one detail in particular from that day stands out. They each wrote “aviator” and “aviatrix” as their occupation on their marriage certificate. However, there is no other evidence to suggest they ever flew planes. Why would they do this?

 

Motorcycles and planes were closely connected in their pioneering years. They had similar engines and were steered and balanced in remarkably similar ways. And this became particularly apparent when the U.S. Naval Aero Corp started to notice how motorcyclists adapted to flight much quicker than non-motorcyclists. Not only did motorcyclists control planes more effectively, but they also learned how to maintain them more quickly. Thus by 1918, the Aero Corp made a point of asking new applicants if they were motorcyclists. So perhaps as young and idealistic love-birds, Marion and Mollie were both motorcyclists who, remembering the pilots of the Great War they looked up to, imagined they'd naturally become pilots one day.

 

Whatever the case may be, the two parked their bikes at the Diederiks household with Marion's mother Lillian and kept a low profile until they attended their first Gypsy Tour in 1929 where Marion made his stunning racing debut. However, the true beginning of his career, that of a hill-climber, came the following year.

 

The location was Rocky Butte, a 612-foot extinct volcanic cinder cone about 7 miles east of downtown Portland. The rugged course ran along the western slope over a distance of 800 feet reaching a staggering 75% grade toward the top. Nationally ranked riders from as far away as Chicago came and competed there. About 6,000 spectators gathered both at the base of the hill and along the edges of the course to watch. The most talented riders summited the hill while riding on a single wheel, while those less talented tipped over and occasionally sent their bikes flying into the crowd. Luckily Marion kept his balance and reached the top in 32 seconds, taking first place in the amateur competition.

 

From this point forward, Marion almost exclusively participated in hill climbs and his effort paid off. From 1933-1935 he was the All Pacific Northwest Hill Climb champion at Longacres Hill in Renton, WA (140 feet, 72% grade). He first climbed Longacres in 5.4 seconds. His nearest competition, Otto Drager, did so in 8 seconds. Then on July 5, 1936, Marion outdid himself by becoming the only one to ascend the taller and steeper 200 foot (near 80% grade) hill west of Camas without falling off his bike along the way.

 

With all his victories, Marion amassed a modest fortune in spectator-funded cash prizes and professional contacts. He and Mollie comfortably rode out the Great Depression. However, there was another hill that would prove even more lucrative and challenging for Marion. This hill of course was Capitol Hill and the challenge was that of starting his own successful Harley Davidson dealership there. He needed someone well-established with enough sales experience to help him do it. This man was Ira Ordwing.

 

Ira Ordwing 
 

Ira “Shorty” Ordwing was a free-spirit and a showman who had built his career as a motorcycle salesman and events organizer without any long-term loyalty to city or brand. He had been selling Harley and Indian Motorcycles for dealers across the country since 1920 and developed a skill for entertaining people along the way.

While in San Francisco in 1923, he organized motorcycle stunt shows that included polo, chariot races, and even mobile pie-eating contests. When he and Marion Diederiks met around 1938, Ira was selling Harleys for Hirsch Cycle Company on Capitol Hill and organizing regional races as chairman of the Seattle chapter of the American Motorcycling Association (AMA). He'd also taken his showmanship to a new level when he and many of his fellow stunt riders formed their own club devoted exclusively to stunt performance called the Seattle Cossacks in early 1938.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Proposition

 

While it isn't clear who proposed that they purchase the local Harley Davidson franchise, the discussion most likely occurred by late-1938 or early-1939. Marion would run the dealership and Ira would be his sales manager. It made little sense at first glance though. Ira had been successfully selling Harleys for his then employer, Hirsch Cycle Company, for years and the company had recently moved to a larger facility due to increased business.

 

So what made Ira think he could do better with Marion and ultimately convinced Harley Davidson to shift gears and sell them the franchise? Consider the following.

 

Historians and descendants understand that hill climbs were very popular and lucrative during the 1930s. Also, hill climbs weren't just entertaining, they were the perfect venue to rigorously test and publicly showcase new bikes. With that in mind consider Ira's 20 years of sales experience, institutional connections through the AMA, and a talent for creating a spectacle. Then pair him with Marion, a skilled mechanic with a 10-year reputation as a top-performing hill climber who had amassed enough wealth to purchase a franchise.

 

The two were a winning combo for Harley Davidson to get their hand on the throttle of the booming motorcycle culture here. They would be directly involved in every step of the process from turning a spectator into a rider (i.e. a customer) or of encouraging a veteran to switch to a Harley or trade theirs in for an upgrade. Ernie Hirsch on the other hand, while a great businessman, was no longer as active in the local motorcycle culture as he once was and thus must have lacked this edge in the business.

 

Setting up shop

 The new Harley Davidson dealership opened on July 3, 1939 and its first location was actually (briefly) at 1621 12th Ave (currently home to Octo Sushi and Velocity Dance). Marion and Ira hired Andy Skeel, a hot-headed and high-ranking speed racer to be their mechanic. In 1937 he and a few others took to riding laps in the Seattle AMA club house and smashing plaster off the walls to express their opposition to recently enacted policies. Otherwise, in a much more even-keeled capacity, Marion's wife Mollie was the shop’s bookkeeper and her kid brother Hank Brethauer was the parts manager making it largely a family business. The Diederiks-Brethauer clan also lived just up the street on 12th.

 

 

Meanwhile, they all continued putting on a show. Marion set new records at every hill climb he competed in that year and thousands saw him do it. And as for Ira, he was organizing shows and competitions left and right. Obstacle courses, speed races, hill climbs, bike polo, and bike acrobatics. He even had Andy smash through a burning building on his bike. If this would not get business rolling, nothing else would. The following year though, they brought the show closer to home.

 

First, it became a full-on family affair. Mollie became treasurer of the Queen City Motorcycle club and helped organize the club's first hill climb at Brown Derby Hill just two miles south of Seattle on April 14, 1940 and it appears this was also her brother Hank's first race. He placed third in two competitions while the club took in $90 (worth $1,575 today) after paying the riders.

 

 

Marion, though, curiously didn't compete at Brown Derby. As revealed in the dealership’s very own monthly newsletter, called Motorcycle Digest, the location was a secret. Anyone who wanted to climb the secret hill would have to meet Marion in front of his shop on 12th Ave at 11:00 AM on May 5th and follow him there. He offered any who could climb “160 feet up the side of a mountain with the last 70 feet almost a sheer wall” an assortment of merchandise and trophies. Unfortunately, the results remain unknown. These couple events more or less set the bar for what turned out to be a another successful year. Too bad the coming war would gradually put an end to the good times.

 

Prepare for War

 

Between January and March of 1941, the dealership moved to a much smaller space at 1827 Broadway. They were probably anticipating reduced sales and inventory as Harley Davidson HQ had already started transitioning to military production that year. To keep the local dealers going though, Harley-Davidson HQ pushed their three-wheeled servi-car for municipal and commercial use. On March 17, 1941, Marion demonstrated the servi-car at Volunteer Park for the SPD traffic division.

 

Since the U.S. wouldn't enter the war until December of 1941, that year’s stunt and racing season continued unabated. Queen City held another race at Brown Derby Hill and the Seattle Cossacks performed for the 1941 Potlatch celebration. Marion and Hank continued to compete in several hill climbs. When the '41 season ended though, Ira’s career and life as he knew it ended with it.

 

In October, Ira became embroiled in divorce proceedings from his estranged wife Gertrude whom he hadn't seen in over a year. In November, he and his fellow Cossacks abandoned their stunts to serve as an auxiliary patrol unit for the Seattle Police Department in anticipation of the war. In December, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In the ensuing march to war, Ira gradually distanced himself from the motorcycling community and eventually quit his sales job at the dealership.

 

The War Years 

 

For the first half of 1942, the dealership exclusively advertised “immediate cash for your motorcycle.” Presumably they were either gathering spare parts for the war effort or else trying to keep their shelves stocked during the war. Otherwise, civilian models did not return to the sales floor until June of '44 and only for “essential users” until 1945. The usual round of races resumed in April of '42 for one more short season before being banned on July 8, 1942 for the duration of the war. Otherwise, the biggest news in the local motorcycle community until after the allies defeated Japan, was mostly personal.

 

Hank had been married to Andy's sister Dorothy since 1941 and they moved to the north suburbs in 1942. Ira remarried to a woman named Aline Olson in August of 1942 and passed his role as captain of the Seattle Cossacks to Andy. Finally, Marion and Mollie reared a son named Thomas and moved into a mansion on Lake Washington in 1943.

 

Postwar

 

Two weeks after Japan surrendered on August 15 1945, the hill climbs quietly resumed, but that magic and exuberance captured by the prewar generation just wasn't quite there. For starters, Ira had since traded in his motorcycle for a fishing pole and some real estate. He and his new wife Aline bought a waterfront resort called Indian Beach on Camano Island. They spent the rest of their days selling real-estate and fishing competitively. Lastly, sometime between '45 and '48, Andy quit the shop and racing to become a racing referee and a deliveryman. With that, the original fabric they had woven had finally unraveled, but the business resumed in a new form.

 

Harley Davidson motorcycle academy

Marion and his generation had passed their prime having at best a few more years of competitive riding left in them. So he and others started mentoring the young hotshot riders returning from the war whether by hiring them as mechanics or sponsoring them for races. He even gathered some of the best talent at his shop to back him up including legendary mechanic Sam Oppie known for his custom-built engines and his eponymous “Sam Oppie Cutdown” bike frame.

 

Two riders who frequented Marion's shop and absorbed his wisdom stood out in particular. The first was Donna Walters. Donna had been fascinated with motorcycles since she was five. After moving to Capitol Hill in the late 40s she became a regular customer at Marion's shop and recalls that Marion always made sure to visit with her and other regulars when they came in. On one such occasion, having been impressed by Donna's skills as a rider, Marion offered to sponsor her for the Queen City Mud Run of 1953 held in Shoreline, WA. She accepted on condition her best friend and touring partner LaRae be allowed to join as well. It was the first year women competed in the Mud Run. Donna placed second, ahead of Andy Skeel who placed forth, and just behind nationally ranked racer Red Farwell.

Another outstanding rider was Cliff Stering. He got his start around age 13 when he purchased his first motorcycle in secret against his father’s wishes and stored it at a friend’s house. After serving in the Navy, he started working for Marion as a mechanic between '50 and '51. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s he engaged in hill climbs, speed races, and stunt routines. He was a Seattle Cossack and all-around daredevil known for riding his bike backward. He even knew how to fly planes. So perhaps Marion passed his prior vision of becoming pilot onto Cliff.

 

Diederiks gets Hirsched

 

In 1950 Harley-Davidson HQ curiously gave veteran racer and hill-climber Otto Drager his own Harley-Davidson dealership on Dexter Ave. No one quite understood the decision back then, but perhaps Harley-Davidson HQ had simply decided that Seattle was now big enough for two shops since they continued to supply them both with new models each year. In any case, according to regular customer and Seattle Cossack Terry Saxlund, this event may have been the catalyst that sparked Marion to gradually take up interests outside the dealership.

 

Closing up shop

 

Perhaps sensing that his days as a dealer were numbered, Marion started moving his wealth into real-estate. On April 20, 1951 he purchased the St. Florence Apartments at 504 E Denny Way from the Boyd family. Two months later, Marion competed in his last known hill climb at “Old Homestead” off Cornell road outside of Portland. The results are unknown.

 

With professional hill climbing behind him, Marion shifted more of his attention to expanding his existing collection of antique motorcycles and automobiles. According to Terry Saxlund Marion went around in the brand new Cadillac he bought every year shoving whole antique motorcycles and parts into the backseat and brought them back to the warehouse pictured below. By 1959, he'd collected over 100 American-made motorcycles mostly of different brands dating back to 1900. Some of these are rumored to still be stored somewhere on Capitol Hill along with some antique cars.

Otherwise, he routinely invited fellow riders, customers, and employees to summer cookouts at his home where they watched Marion's teenage son Thomas (Tommy) compete in hydroplane races on Lake Washington. 1957 though would prove to be the watershed year. On Saturday June 22, 1957, while on vacation near Long Beach, WA — where Marion made his debut as a racer — the Diederiks family suffered a devastating loss. While swimming in the surf, a massive wave struck Tommy and knocked him out cold. Seeing that Tommy was unconscious, his cousin Jack quickly swam to his aid, but it was too late. The force of the wave was so powerful, Tommy had suffered a fatal stroke.

 

A few months later, Marion converted the shop into a dealership for Renault automobiles, but only until February of 1959. He then passed the 1827 Broadway torch to fellow antique car enthusiast and auto parts distributor Phil Gardner. Hereafter, Marion became a full-time antique motorcycle and automobile collector until his death from Cancer in August of 1969 at the age of 62.

Special thanks to Thomas Samuelsen, Rob Root, Dave Eady, Donna Shields, Terry Saxlund, John Viljoen, the Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling, and the Seattle Cossacks Stunt and Drill Team.

 

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